The Right Book At The Right Time: Three-A-Penny.


April showers might bring May flowers, but around here they’ve mostly brought monsoons, ‘sheltering-in’ a moot point when you’d drown if you stepped outside.

Other things large and small that we’ll just lump together under “Pandemic Fatigue” conspired to drag me down for several days. But before I could descend into any self-indulgent woe-is-me mindset, Golden Age British mystery author Lucy Malleson came to the rescue with her 1940 memoir Three-A-Penny, the 2019 US edition just out here this May.

Subtitled “In A Man’s World: The Classic Memoir of A 1930’s Writer”, this 80-year-old work reads more like a novel, arriving serendipitously as the perfect prescription to chase my own blues away. It’s hard to be bummed-out by the trivial when you’re reading a memoir from someone who endured real woes.

A contemporary of better-known British mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Lucy Malleson wrote some sixty novels under the Anthony Gilbert pen name, along with numerous other books under her own and other names, plus thirty radio plays and an impressive number of short mysteries, most of those published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Her engagingly written memoir recounts the stressful times of the First World War’s horrors, the 1918 Flu Pandemic and England’s interwar economic chaos, which Lucy Malleson overcomes while enduring persistent gender discrimination at every turn. Struggling to get by on a secretary’s subsistence pay, she began writing short poems, then stories and finally sold her first novel, The Man Who Was London, inspired in part by a performance of the popular play The Cat And The Canary.

No matter the challenge, Malleson responds optimistically with unrelenting pragmatism . There’s no self-pity to be found in her memoir, only an utterly practical, determined person working her way through life in a man’s world. Her decision to pitch her first novel under a male pen name (and how she cooked up the ‘Anthony Gilbert’ moniker) is an absolute treat to read. But once the novel was due for publication, she was caught off-guard by the publisher’s request for an author bio – including publicity photos. Undeterred, Malleson got fitted for a custom wig and beard at a theatrical agency, posed for some photos and dreamed up a suitable background for ‘Anthony Gilbert’, an identity she carefully protected for years.

The Three-A-Penny title comes from fellow British mystery novelist Dorothy Sayers, who wrote, “You must remember, Anthony Gilbert, that although authors are three-a-penny to us, they are quite exciting to other people”. The book ends when Malleson is only halfway through her productive career, still brimming with optimism that her next story, next novel, or next script will be the one that finally achieves the fame and fortune that eluded her throughout her career.

“I don’t feel guilty that my books don’t sell ten thousand copies,” Malleson wrote in her memoir’s conclusion, “though I should love them to, and so would my publishers. When I was young, I confidently thought they would; when they didn’t, I was astounded. But it never occurred to me, when my average sales were 1,250 copies, to abandon writing and do something more lucrative. Besides, one day they may.”

Reel Murders

The Big Book Of Reel Murders

I haven’t ordered mine yet (it’s pouring today and I’m not up to racing through rainstorms to get from my car to the bookstore) but I will on Monday, the book not out till late October anyway (seen online) or as late as November (per Publisher’s Weekly): The Big Book Of Reel MurdersStories That Inspired Great Crime Films by the master of all things mystery, Otto Penzler. It looks like another Vintage Crime/Black Lizard door-stopper from the maestro, at 1,200 pages and with over sixty mystery and crime fiction short stories that have been adapted to the big screen. From the descriptions, there are some of the usual suspects like Cornell Woolrich, Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett and Robert Bloch, alongside some more surprising entries like Budd Schulberg’s 1954 “Murder On The Waterfront”, the inspiration for Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (Schulberg also wrote the screenplay). These jumbo Penzler anthologies are books you sort of live with for a while, diving into a few eager-to-read or re-read stories right away, then revisiting again and again over a few weeks till finished, which sounds to me like a darn good way to spend the late Autumn.

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

From the well-known anthologist, author and master of all things mystery, Otto Penzler: The Big Book Of Female Detectives, which proudly claims to be “The Most Complete Collection Of Detective Dames, Gumshoe Gals & Sultry Sleuths Ever Assembled”. I’m not qualified to say if it is or it isn’t, only to point out that it is indeed one big, fat book at 1,115 pages.

Now keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a collection of tales written by women, but about women detectives, cops, reporters and various sleuths, and understandably the women writers are better represented in more of the contemporary material.

The book includes 74 stories, arranged chronologically with each section and story accompanied by informative introductions written by the master himself. Victorian/Edwardian – British Mysteries and Pre-World War One – American Mysteries comprise the early era. Those are followed by The Pulp Era, The Golden Age and The Mid-Century, and the longest section, The Modern Era. But Penzler’s not done yet, and closes with a final section devoted to women on the other side of the law, Bad Girls. Of course, there’s no way to assemble a book like this without some critics complaining that their favorite character was left out or questioning why a particular writer was included at all. So let them quibble. For myself, I’ll confess that I sped through the early eras’ sections and really get hooked in The Pulp Era, with one of my personal favorites from that period, Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady in “The Domino Lady Collects”, and surprised to see two Adolphe Barreaux Sally The Sleuth strips, including “Coke For Co-Eds”…you just have to love that title. Familiar names crowd the Modern Era, including Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Max Allan Collins, Nevada Barr, Lawrence Block and others.

I got this book before the holidays and only just wrapped it up now, dipping in for a story here and a story there at a leisurely pace. Finishing it was almost bittersweet – I got used to seeing that big ol’ book on the endtable. If you see it, get it. I can’t think of better ‘textbook’ overview of women detectives (and crooks!) in one book.


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